Main Engine Cut Off

FCC Proposal for new Smallsat Licensing

Caleb Henry, for SpaceNews, on an FCC proposal that I like the sound of and will be keeping my eye on:

The FCC released the text of the proposed licensing rules July 11. On Aug. 1, FCC commissioners will vote on adopting the measure, which so far has received praise from satellite industry groups. 

To qualify for the streamlined licenses, the FCC proposal requires satellites either deploy into orbits below 600 kilometers or carry propulsion systems to deorbit satellites in six years. 

Eligible satellites have to weigh 180 kilograms or less (including fuel), and need to be 10 centimeters or larger in their smallest dimension. The licenses are also applicable to a maximum of 10 spacecraft at a time.

T+126: The NASA Ousters

Two top NASA human exploration leaders—Bill Gerstenmaier and Bill Hill—have been ousted from their positions. I break down what this means for NASA and its plans, where things could go from here, and ponder whether these changes really matter.

This episode of Main Engine Cut Off is brought to you by 39 executive producers—Kris, Pat, Matt, Jorge, Brad, Ryan, Jamison, Nadim, Peter, Donald, Lee, Jasper, Chris, Warren, Bob, Russell, John, Moritz, Joel, Jan, David, Grant, Mike, David, Mints, Joonas, Robb, Tim Dodd the Everyday Astronaut, Frank, Rui, Julian, Lars, Tommy, and six anonymous—and 244 other supporters.

SLS Officially Slipping to Late 2021, At Best

Eric Berger over at Ars Technica with his typical great insight from interesting sources:

According to a NASA source familiar with this assessment, the agency found that under current plans, including a “green run” test firing of the core stage at Stennis Space Center in 2020, the Artemis-1 mission would not be ready for launch until at least “late 2021.” Moreover, NASA was likely to need more money—above the more than $2 billion it already receives annually for SLS development—to realistically make a late 2021 launch date.


Vandenberg’s Lull is California’s Problem

A couple of comments by people at Vandenberg from this SpaceNews article by Sandra Erwin have been eating at me since I read it last week.

“We are having a lull,” said Col. Michael Hough, commander of the Air Force 30th Space Wing and Western Range. “This is market driven. Demand for polar orbits is just not that high,” he said during a recent meeting with government officials attended by a SpaceNews reporter.

The “polar isn’t popular” sentiment doesn’t ring true at all. Browsing through recent launches, it seems as if every other satellite is headed to sun-synchronous orbit. For medium-to-heavy size payloads, demand is lower than for smallsats, sure.

But also, Vandenberg has only a single commercially-viable operator right now—SpaceX—so this is a little bit chicken-or-egg. Firefly is moving into SLC-2W soon, but the Vandenberg crew needs to cultivate more small launch tenants if they want to see increased activity.

The big problem is that it’s painful to get established at Vandenberg because of the environment the state has created there. Head to Cape Canaveral, and Space Florida will actively throw money your way. Head to Vandenberg, and you better watch where you step.

Hough said it would take at least two years to secure state permits for a space launch pad and although Vandenberg is a huge base, the land available to build a large pad is limited.


Later in the article, people from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) talk up SLC-6, where Delta IV Heavy launches from currently, as a potential multi-user pad, but I wish they would publish a list of available sites.

Back in April, I asked a handful of SMC members about which sites were available, and they were stumped. I followed up via email and never heard back. Someone must have a list of available sites, but I suppose the presence of double-fenced areas makes it tricky to talk about.

Until we hear otherwise, I’ll continue to bet that Relativity will take over SLC-3W.

But if the state is stubborn and wants it to take 2 years to get permits in place, maybe they’re better off taking the trek to Alaska, or in the future, Nova Scotia.

Firefly, IAI to Partner on Beresheet-Derived Lander

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

Firefly and IAI said they signed intellectual property and engineering support agreements giving Firefly access to the technology IAI developed for the Beresheet lander. Firefly will use that technology to manufacture a version of that lander and offer it to NASA through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program.

If the tips I picked up previously about Firefly using Intuitive Machines’ lander were accurate, this is a curious change. The Beresheet-derived lander is probably quite a few years out, though, as the mockups show it stacked on top of a Firefly Beta and it needs that kind of lift to get to the Moon.

Virgin Galactic to Merge with Publicly-Traded Investment Company

I’m glad that Virgin Galactic and Branson walked away from the funding from Saudi Arabia, but this route still has some oddities—a merger to get investment, going public not by going public themselves, but by merging with an already-publicly traded company, and so on.

Becoming publicly traded feels like a bad plan for a company like Virgin Galactic, which just adds to my list of concerns about them and their operations.

Regardless, it’s clear they have been in need of massive funding. This deal brings in $800 million which they’ll almost certainly be using to build more vehicles (SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two) and expand to multiple locations.

They’ll need to if they want to meet their insanely hopeful predictions for growth and profitability.

Acting Air Force Secretary Weighs In on Space Force Debate

Sandra Erwin of SpaceNews published an enlightening interview with Matt Donovan, Acting Air Force Secretary, where he shares his thoughts on the Space Force debate publicly for the first time.

It’s a notable interview because he was the undersecretary of the Air Force for the past two years, yet we heard nothing from him through that time—he left the public-facing interactions to Secretary Heather Wilson. She was pretty averse to a separate Space Force, and from the outside, it certainly appears as if she was using everything she had to undermine the effort from day one.

To hear that Donovan is fervently in support of a fully separate service is quite interesting, and if you’re interested in the issue at all, it’s worth the read.

NASA Selects 12 Payloads for Upcoming Commercial Lunar Payload Services Flights

It’s a long list, and I don’t see any specific flight assignments yet, but there are a few payloads of note in here:

  • MoonRanger, a small rover from Astrobotic with Andrew Horchler as the principal investigator. Andrew appeared on the podcast a year ago with Michael Provenzano to talk about CubeRover, which has gone mysteriously silent and sounds a lot like MoonRanger.
  • PlanetVac, a sample acquisition system from Honeybee Robotics.
  • LISTER, a horrible acronym yet really interesting sounding drill that will attempt to make its way 2 to 3 meters into the surface of the Moon.
  • SAMPLR, which will use a flight spare of the Mars Exploration Rovers’ arms to investigate lunar regolith.

NASA Awards IXPE Launch to SpaceX for $50.3 Million

NASA has selected SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for the agency’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission, which will allow astronomers to discover, for the first time, the hidden details of some of the most exotic astronomical objects in our universe.  

The total cost for NASA to launch IXPE is approximately $50.3 million, which includes the launch service and other mission-related costs.

IXPE measures polarized X-rays from objects, such as black holes and neutron stars to better understand these types of cosmic phenomena and extreme environments.

The IXPE mission currently is targeted to launch in April 2021 on a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A in Florida.

Boy, is that inexpensive. IXPE is just a few hundred kilograms and is going to a 0° inclination orbit, so Falcon 9 could fit a bit more payload aboard, but not much.

I’m going to guess that it will fly solo, and take the title away from FORMOSAT 5 for lightest payload flown by Falcon 9.